Lit GuidesLitbug

She Unnames Them | Summary and Analysis

Summary of She Unnames Them by Ursula Le Guin

She Unnames Them by fantasy and sci-fi author Ursula Le Guin is a feminist, self-deterministic short story that talks about reversing one of the foundational elements of society – names – from a feminist perspective. Having its first half narrated with the use of the first-person narrative that appears to be a third-person narrative till the latter half of the story, since no mentions of the narrator are present till then. The story reimagines the Biblical story of Genesis, where Eve ‘unnames’ all the animals that Adam had named in the traditional Genesis myth.

She Unnames Them | Summary

The text begins in medias res, or in the middle of action in a third person narrative, and we are introduced to the reactions that various animal species have had on the issue of giving up their names, returning them back to their ‘donor. While whales, dolphins, seals and sea otters embraced the notion with grace and graciousness, yaks were not so happy with the idea. They insist that unlike other ubiquitous species who have been called by a multitude of names, their name is uniquely specific to them, and it reflects who they are. After a long discussion that lasts over the entire summer, the council of elderly females, with the consensus of the bulls of the yak society, come to the conclusion that the name is only useful to other creatures for referring to them, and is never a marker of self-identification, having never been used by the yaks themselves. Thus, they also decide to do away with their names unanimously.

While most domestic animals, like horses, care little about what they are called, a few posit challenges. Cats being the enlightened, self-conscious creatures they are, outrightly deny ever being appropriated with a name chosen by someone outside their species. Dogs and some other pet birds like parrots and lovebirds, however, initially refuse to part with their names, asserting that their names are part of their personal identity and is important to them. However, on understanding that the entire issue behind the idea of naming and unnaming is that of personal freedom and agency, they agree to do away with their categorical breed names, while holding on to their individual names. Insects let go of their names willingly, as do the millions of fish in the sea. 

With the effect of this unnaming appearing to be much larger than expected, the story now focuses its attention on the narrator, who realizes that unnaming them has brought her much closer to all ‘other’ animals, the boundaries have melted away with the names. Their fear of each other, as well as the pull that they feel towards each other, have all converged with that single act of unnaming. Overwhelmed by the unexpected effects of her act, she decides to do away with her own name.  

She visits a man called Adam, declaring that she intends to return the useful but unnecessary and unsuitable ‘gift’ that he and his father gave her, her name. It is at this point that the reader understands that the narrator is, in fact, none other than the biblical Eve, who has had enough of patriarchy’s controlling, deterministic tendencies. 

While Eve is initially afraid that she might appear to be ungrateful in front of Adam, his indifferent response both relieves and disappoints her. Feeling let down, he waits for him to take notice of her or her words, but he does neither, simply choosing to carry on with his work. Giving up, Eve bids Adam farewell, to which Adam replies by asking “When’s dinner?” Hesitantly, she replies that she isn’t sure, telling him that she is leaving with ‘them’, ‘them’ being the animals. The final image that the story shows Eve slowly walking away from the only ‘home’ she knew, a comfortable, sheltered space, stepping tentatively towards the ‘dark-branched, tall dancers motionless against the winter shining’.

She Unnames Them | Analysis

As discussed at the beginning of the summary, the story begins with the use of the literary device ‘in medias res’ or ‘in the middle of action’. The reader gains access to the story only after the unnaming process has already begun and is in the middle of being executed. The narrative voice is in first-person, although it appears to be in the third person until the later half of the story, prior to which there is no mention of the narrator. We are not told anything about what suddenly led to this unprecedented decision, and are also kept in the dark regarding the narrator or the initiator’s identity. 

Names, or the act of naming, is one of the foundational frameworks of human society- an organizing principle without which life appears unimaginable. The very act of naming somebody is a symbol of exercising control over somebody, to the extent that one’s identity, consciousness, and even the idea of the self are inevitably centered on a name that has been chosen by someone else. By definition, the word ‘given’ implies that the power to choose and control lies with the one who is giving, not the one being given. The same is the case with naming; thus, parents naming their newborn child is the ultimate act of ownership and control that they can exercise over their child. In the context of the Genesis myth of the Bible, Adam’s act of naming all other creatures signifies his authority and superiority over all of them – thus God names Man, and Man in turn names all other creatures, establishing the order of this hierarchy. In a way, the act of naming parallels the act of Creation itself, Adam literally ‘creating’ their identity, forging the way all animals perceive themselves and each other. 

Le Guin’s story is a revisionist attempt of reversing this patriarchal, anthropocentric, hegemonic act of naming. As religion and patriarchy are inevitably interlinked, Adam naming Eve, as well as other animals is not only an instance of the patriarchal idea of man’s supremacy over women but also an example of anthropocentrism – the belief that human beings are the greatest and most important of all creatures. Eve’s act of unnaming then becomes a reversal of this patriarchal norm, an act where she regains the agency lost while her appropriation at Adam’s hands. A valid criticism of this story can be that even Eve’s act of unnaming the animals carries an anthropocentric presupposition within itself that it is only human beings that can name or unname others. However, it would be useful to remember that some of the animal species raise objections to this idea, like yaks, while others like cats deny ever having a name, while still others like dogs and pet birds hold on to their individual, given names, refusing to adopt complete anonymity, unlike most other creatures. In this way, Le Guin intelligently subverts the idea of anthropocentrism, portraying animals as capable of exercising agency and self-determination. 

The story also uses the idea of nature and its oneness, which gradually unfolds as all animals along with Eve, shed their categorized, straight-jacketed identities. With their names, they also slowly forget the distinctions between one another, distinctions that were put in place by humans themselves, and begin to experience the unity and oneness of nature, of which they all are a part.

The last four paragraphs of the story reveal the narrator’s identity, helping the reader contextualize the story in its relation to the Genesis myth. As Eve decides to relinquish her given name, we witness a moment of hesitation, a fear of displeasing or appearing ungrateful to the men in her life. This people-pleasing tendency is one of the fundamental aspects of the values of submission and obedience that patriarchal society inculcates in women. Eve’s progress despite her hesitation is then symbolic of breaking free from the chains of patriarchy that had bound her. It is also interesting to note that the first letter ‘father’ is not capitalized when Eve tells Adam that she is ‘returning’ her name given by him and his ‘father’. As the first letters of God, the Father is compulsorily in Christian practice, this act signifies a deliberate subversion of this dominant religious and patriarchal idea that yields unlimited power and authority to a man (since God, unsurprisingly, is also a man).

Adam’s indifference to Eve’s declaration throws light on the plight of women in society, whose partners treat them with indifference and degradation every day, their presence/existence having no value in their eyes besides their domestic and reproductive necessity. His question, ‘When’s dinner’ reflects this very indifference, relegating women and their importance to be limited only to the kitchen space.

The final image of the story is extremely evocative when Eve leaves behind her ‘home’ stepping towards the ‘dark-branched, tall dancers motionless against the winter shining.’ ‘Home’ here is Paradise where her existence is safe, secure, and innocent, but also restricted by the laws of God and Man. The ‘dark-branched, tall dancers motionless against the winter shining.’ evokes the unknown, the dark, the dangerous, and the sublime. As she treads slowly, and cautiously on this path, she is aware of the risks and the dangers that may befall her. However, she also knows that this is the only way that leads to her freedom and enlightenment, choosing its dangers over the sheltered oppression of Paradise.

She Unnames Them | Themes

  • Naming, Control, and Agency – The very act of naming someone is an act of exercising dominance and authority that places the person giving the name on a superior station. Renaming or unnaming oneself thus becomes an act of reclamation of agency over one’s self and identity.

 

  • Feminism – The act of Eve unnaming herself and all other creatures is a feminist reimagination of the story of Genesis in which the woman is named, and by extension determined, appropriated, and controlled by a man. Biblically, the name ‘Woman’ is also derived the word ‘Man’, much as Eve is physically derived from the body of Adam. ‘She Unnames Them’ thus portrays Eve’s self-actualization in her act of unnaming the names given by Adam, literally reversing one of the key aspects of the patriarchal worldview. 
  • Self-determination – The act of unnaming, or choosing to remain anonymous or hold on to their given names, gives animals the opportunity of self-determination, something that has always been denied to them.

 

  • Nature, Femininity and Oneness – In Le Guin’s story, Nature rules supreme, it is above and beyond even God. This theme is also a noticeable subversion of Christian theology where God creates nature. In ‘She Unnames Them’, breaking away from the names given by God and his Man brings Eve and all other animals closer to nature, which is placed at the other extreme of God. If God and his Paradise are spaces of the Masculine, of control, of innocence and ignorance, Nature then is the space of the Feminine, of liberty, of knowledge and exploration. By letting go of their names, all animals and Eve break free of the chains that put them into boxes and divided them. As their differences melt away with their names, they experience for the first time their own interconnectedness, realizing that they are all a part of the huge cycle of Nature, and are inevitably and irreversibly linked to each other.

 

 

 

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Check Also

Close
Close
Close

Adblock Detected

Please consider supporting us by disabling your ad blocker